I’m Not Okay, but I’ll Get There: Fitting In and the Dismantling of Self

People are weird. I realize that’s sort of a blanket statement, but I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately because according to many studies, other people are almost more vital to our existence than oxygen. Okay, maybe that’s an overstatement, but a recent study done by Susan Pinker (I’ll place the link to her TED talk below) showed that, when it comes to living long, healthy lives, we couldn’t be more wrong about what helps us get there. The gym fanatics say exercise and dieting helps you live longer, the hipsters say it’s eating gluten free, people with large bank accounts think it’s plastic surgery, but according to Susan Pinker, a psychologist, author, and columnist for the Wall Street Journal, the secret to living longer is allegedly your social life. According to her study, people who spend more time around other people, tend to live longer, happier lives. She calls this the Village Effect, and it’s all pretty sound logic, except for the fact that embracing the Village Effect isn’t an easy task when the village is full of idiots.

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Again, I’m painfully aware that I’m painting this topic in pretty broad strokes, so let’s narrow down the reasoning. I love people, and I love to give people the benefit of the doubt when it comes to assuming things about them. I don’t believe that all people are idiots, and I certainly don’t believe that all people are evil. What I do believe is that people tend to follow the laws of human nature, and just like the idea of mass creating mass, when two or more people gather in the same place or travel in the same circles, they create drama, and drama creates more drama. This isn’t a bad thing – maybe. Humanity has free will, which means that everybody tends to think and feel different things about different actions and ideologies. For example, when I was in college, I once participated in a debate about places where farts are the funniest. The list started out with about fifty locations, and was slowly narrowed down to two. By the end of the debate, the room was split between church and movie theaters. There wasn’t exactly a clear cut winner, but over the course of the debate, thoughts and opinions were changed in order to not only keep participating, but also to feel belonging and acceptance amongst a group of people, which brings me to my next point.

If you’ve ever hung out in church circles, there’s a strong belief that existing in a community of like-minded believers can strengthen you as a person and bring you closer to God. While I believe that’s important, community also comes with its fair share of complications, especially when it comes to theological differences. Churches – big churches especially – like to believe they’re the religious authority on everything. If you disagree with what they’re teaching or begin leaning toward another way of thinking, you become isolated and ostracized. So to avoid being cast out, we silently agree to disagree, while the wound continues to fester in small camps of people who believe differently. In her book Braving the Wilderness, Brene Brown says this, “People often silence themselves, or “agree to disagree” without fully exploring the actual nature of the disagreement, for the sake of protecting a relationship and maintaining connection. But when we avoid certain conversations, and never fully learn how the other person feels about all of the issues, we sometimes end up making assumptions that not only perpetuate but deepen misunderstandings, and that can generate resentment.” And this doesn’t just happen in church circles, it happens in every type of social circle from casual friends to Monday night bunko clubs. People appear to be civil on the outside, but in their eyes is a sort of predatory sub-context, and the moment you show any sign of weakness, your acquaintances are going to pounce. Why? To remain in a favorable spot amongst their social circle. I’ve seen it happen, and I’ve even participated in it. Looking at it objectively, I can’t help but wonder . . . are we all just lying to each other to avoid confrontation and to be liked? That would be a sad statement for anybody looking for anything genuine in the world, whether friendships, romantic interests, or a desire to simply exist. And what happens when you can’t live like that anymore? That’s when things get interesting.

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There’s an old saying amongst writers that claims that a writer lives their entire life before the age of twenty-three, because by that time, they’ve collected enough scars and painful experiences to last a lifetime. That’s a pretty sad commentary, and it’s also true. If you ask any creative personality about their mental state, they’ll tell you that they’ve experienced mental illness in some form. Whether it’s depression, anxiety, suicidal feelings, suicide attempts, Schizophrenia, (the list goes on) it’s caused them pain and suffering in some way. However, chances are it’s also fueled their creativity in some way, as well, whether by encouraging inward thinking or giving them the ability to step outside the box and see the world for the beautiful, chaotic mess that it is. However, with a gift like that, there’s also a curse. If you’ve experienced one of the above mentioned things, you probably have a difficult time fitting into social circles. I spend a lot of time in the midst of dysfunctional people, and while I love my friends, we’ve found common ground in the idea that none of us are okay, but not everybody has that. Why? My dad once asked me a question about depression. He asked me if I think depression is an inability to cope with the world, or a deeper understanding of the world that most people can’t experience. Basically, he said that people who experience depression are painfully aware of all the world’s illusions, and I agree with him. We all want to be okay, but in the greater scheme of things, nobody is okay. It’s just a questions of whether or not you’re okay with not being okay, and if you’ve gotten to that point, you’ve probably experienced what I like to call a “dismantling of self.”

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Mental breakdowns are funny things in the fact that nobody is immune to them, and they can be triggered by anything from a break up to your favorite fast food place running out of ranch dressing. Sometimes, they can even be triggered by nothing at all. They just happen. When I was in high school, I remember waking up one morning and not wanting to exist anymore. All of the things that I once loved and lived for suddenly meant nothing. I isolated myself from my friends and family, and I dreamt of what the world would be like if I were no longer in it. Would anybody care? Would anybody miss me? Would I leave any kind of lasting impression on any of the people whose lives intersected with mine? I would think about this, and I would think about how I would make my life stop. And it wasn’t a fear that stopped me from doing it, it was a light in the back of my mind that made me believe things would get better. Call it God, call it hope, call it what you will, but I persevered, all while somewhat clinging to that dark thought in the back of my mind that there’s always a way out. Did things get better? No, they didn’t. They got significantly worse. I went to a private high school, where a lot of things happened that shouldn’t have, but that’s another story for another time. Long story short, I graduated and then avalanched into my twenties, where – between failed relationships, failed college classes family issues, and a plethora of mental health issues – I stopped focusing on building myself and instead started focusing on just making it from one day to the next. And through all of this, I clung to the idea that what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger. Because if that old saying is true, I was going be mentally and emotionally ripped by the time I figured it all out. Now, here I am, careening down the backside of my twenties, and I still haven’t figured it out. In fact, I’ll be completely honest, I’m not doing so well, these days. Between family issues, spiritual issues, and my own mental health, every day takes a toll on me that I sometimes wonder if I’m capable of paying, but still I’m trying my best to continue growing as a person and be a role model for those who look up to me. The point that I’m trying to make is that I’m not without flaws, and I won’t pretend to be.

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Sorry to get really dark right there. This is going somewhere. My story isn’t as simple as all of that. What you read above is just the abridged version, but through all of that, I thought my life was building toward something great, when in fact, it was being dismantled one piece at a time. I tried hard to stop and pick up the pieces, thinking that if I could just collect enough of who I used to be, I could put myself back together and become a functional human being, but I’m slowly realizing that that’s not how it works . . . not exactly. Despite popular belief, once you go through a dismantling of self, there’s not any going back. I never really thought about this to any extent until recently, when somebody I used to care for a great deal told me a little bit about how her life is a mess now, and she wished that things could go back to normal. It was then that I remembered a quote from Peter Rollins’ book The Idolatry of God. In it he says this, “Perhaps the best we can do is observe our unique unravelling and the way in which we survive it. I am this creature, continually coming apart, but I was born to do it. I am in the unravelling and the making new and the tearing down and the building up again. I am in the question and continually in the question.” This brought me to the conclusion that perhaps in the unraveling (or dismantling) of ourselves, we’re not supposed to become who we once were. Instead, we’re given the opportunity to become somebody new, somebody better. For me personally, I’ve made a habit of finding identity in my sorrow and pain, but lately I’ve been on a spiritual journey of sorts, and I’m discovering all kinds of things about myself that I never thought about before. And while the scars have built me into the person I am today, they don’t have to define me, and they certainly don’t have to define you. That being said, you don’t have to pretend they don’t exist. When one becomes stuck in between the stages of being and becoming, it’s often due to the fact that they stopped taking the time to feel things. Nobody likes to feel pain. In fact, growing up, a majority of people are taught that it’s not okay to feel things like sadness, anger, or uncertainty, and our inability to experience those things can lead us down some dark paths, but what we don’t realize is that there is beauty in the chaos. There is something worth seeking, hidden in the resulting wreckage of our pain and suffering.

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I’ll be honest, this blog has been a garbage truck on fire. I started it with the intent of talking about something specific, but every time I try, I end up sidetracking on another subject. For now, we’ll just go with it. If you’re one of those people who feels like they don’t fit in with other people, don’t give up. After various events in my own life, I’ve slowly lost the ability to socialize. I either say something wrong or don’t say anything at all, at times when I’m supposed to. Mostly, I spend a majority of conversations inside my head thinking about other things. I know that I’m not the only person who does this. Small talk is difficult for some people. Whether you’re creative or suffer from mental health issues, or possibly both . . . or maybe socializing is a skill you’ve never been taught, it’s easy to become lost in the loneliness that results from seeing the world from a point of view that most people don’t. But don’t give up. There’s something beautiful in the painful awareness that comes with being an outcast. While everybody else appears to be happy and content on the outside, are they really? We all spend our lives striving for that thing called normalcy, but normalcy is a difficult standard because everybody experiences life differently, and to once again quote Jonathan Tropper, “It’s true. somewhere inside us we are all the ages we have ever been. We’re the 3 year old who got bit by the dog. We’re the 6 year old our mother lost track of at the mall. We’re the 10 year old who get tickled till we wet our pants. We’re the 13 year old shy kid with zits. We’re the 16 year old no one asked to the prom, and so on. We walk around in the bodies of adults until someone presses the right button and summons up one of those kids.” There are some things that we can never walk away from, or pretend don’t exist, but those things don’t have to hold us back. Life is always in flux, which means that there’s no limit to how many times you can reinvent yourself. As kids, we’re always taught to avoid certain emotions and experiences, but in our constant search for identity, some of those emotions and experiences are vital to who we need to become. This doesn’t mean you should isolate yourself from people, and even though loneliness can feel comfortable, like a warm sweater on a cold winter night, it doesn’t mean that we should dwell in it.

We’ve become a society that sweeps things under the rug. We change history that we don’t like, we ghost people we don’t want to talk to, and we think that if we ignore our problems, they go away. And this is the law that a majority of people live their lives according to. As for the rest of us, we see the rot, and fitting into a group of people that don’t see it, is difficult even at the best of times. We might not realize it, but we’re constantly dismantling ourselves in order to adapt, in order to fit in, but we shouldn’t be adapting to become like everybody else, we should be adapting to become the best version of ourselves, whether or not that version is compatible with what everybody else wants us to be. Sometimes you have to forget about what other people are expecting and just exist.

 

 

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